One of the most talented painters ever to have graced the Indian soil, Amrita Shergil was an artist beyond compare. Though she lived for just 28 short years, she left an indelible mark on the history of contemporary Indian art. She is often referred to as India’s Frida Kahlo, but the comparison doesn’t seem to do her justice—she was a wonderful artist in her own right, not someone who needed to be compared to another person for greatness. Born to an Indian Punjabi father, Amrita was by no means a typical Indian woman. Her mother was a Hungarian and Amrita was born in Budapest. She began painting by herself as a five year old and her parents arranged for her to have lessons later on after seeing her talents. When she grew up into a gifted teenager her mother took her to Europe to expose her daughter to various genres of paintings. However, it was only after coming back to India did Amrita realize her full potential. Her paintings were the perfect blend of Western and Indian techniques which gave them an exotic appeal combined with earthiness.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born in Budapest, Hungary to Umrao Singh Shergil, a Sikh aristocrat and his Jewish Hungarian wife, Marie Antoniette Gottesmann. She had one younger sister, Indira.
Her family moved to Shimla, India in 1921 where the sisters began learning piano and violin. The talented girls even gave concerts. Amrita displayed an interest in painting from a young age and formally started learning when she was eight.
Amrita’s mother recognized her talents and took her to Italy in 1924 where she got her enrolled at Santa Annunziata, an art school. Here she got exposed to works of Italian art.
She also went to Paris to train as a painter and was at Ecole des Beaux-Arts from 1930 to 1934. Here she became acquainted with the works of European painters like Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin.
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She made her first major work, ‘Young Girls’ in 1932 for which she was elected as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933. Thus, she became the only Asian to have received this honor.
Even while she was in Europe in 1934, she was overcome by a strong feeling to go back to India. She returned to India and started getting acquainted with the traditional forms of Indian art. She was influenced by Mughal and Pahari schools of paintings.
She toured South India in 1937 and produced some paintings which would go on to become very famous. ‘Bride’s Toilet’, depicting a bride getting ready for her wedding was one of them.
Two other paintings completed her South Indian trilogy. These were ‘Brahmacharis’ and ‘South Indian Villagers Going to Market’. Her attempts to use classical Indian style of painting can be seen in these.
She was greatly pained by the plight of poor Indians, especially women around her. She often painted agonizingly thin figures with grim expressions on their faces to depict the difficult life Indians lived at that time.
Even though she had lived in other countries, she felt at home in India where she was able to pursue her artistic abilities. She felt that the purpose of her life was to portray the life of Indian people through her canvas.
Her first phase of painting is considered to have begun after she returned to India as it marked her evolution as an artist. Post her marriage, the second phase of her painting started. The paintings she made during this phase were compared to the works of the masters of the Bengal School of art.
She was very much influenced by the Pahari and miniature schools of painting which is evident from her works such as ‘In the Ladies’ Enclosure’ and the ‘Village Scene’. At her peak, she was acclaimed to be the greatest painter of the century by art critics.
She moved to Lahore in September 1941 with her husband Victor; Lahore was a major artistic hub in those days. She was supposed to open her first major solo show in Lahore when she mysteriously died, leaving the world shaken by her untimely death.
She is best known for her paintings of sad looking, thin and frail women which realistically depicted the plight of Indian women of her times. One of her paintings, ‘Village Scene’ sold for Rs. 6.9 crores at an auction in New Delhi in 2006.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1938 she married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan and lived with him in her parental home in Uttar Pradesh, India. In spite of being married, Amrita had numerous love affairs with both men and women.
The couple moved to Lahore in 1941 where Amrita became seriously ill, went into a coma, and died all of a sudden. Her mother suspected Victor of murdering her though the cause of her death was never ascertained. The artist was just 28 years old at the time of her death.